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C'est la Z

Pinebook Pro - an $200 Linux Laptop

I'm writing this on my new Pinebook Pro - a $200 ARM based Linux laptop. The Pinebook Pro comes from the Pine64 project. As you could figure out, they do the Pine64 which is similar to a Raspberry Pi and they've got some cool projects. In addition to the Pinebook pro they've also got the Pine Tab and Pine Phone and more. Now, you're not going to be able to go to their site and say "I need 30 of these for my class" - at least not for the Pinebook pro but it is a pretty cool proof of concept and hobbyist machine and it shows that we could have affordable devices for our schools and less afluent students.

I got the PbP out of curiousity and also to see if I could find a low cost solution for Hunter College students. All of my honors students get laptops but the rest of Hunter CS is on their own so a low cost device is pretty attractive.

The specs are pretty decent - 1080P 14" screen, 4GB of memory, 64GB mmc (upgradeable), USB-C, long battery life and more. They claim that it can drive an external 4k monitor but I haven't tested this yet.

So, does it deliver?

Overall yes but with a few caveats. It's still on the side of a tinkerer/hobbyist device.

Out of the box it seemed DOA - it wouldn't boot. I found in the forums that there's an emmc enable switch inside that sometimes ended up in the off position. I had to take out the eight screws from the bottom, pop the case and flip the switch. Seems like that's something that could have been caught before they closed the cases but it wasn't too big of a deal. It is, however a deal breaker for a novice.

From there it booted fine. Right into Manjaro Linux running KDE. Everything seemed to work. Next I tried to boot of an SD card - Debian this time. Worked like a charm though the distribution kept dropping WIFI.

Back to Manjaro. Being a Linuxmint user and having not used Manjaro in about two years it took a bit of time to get the lay of the land but just about everything worked. I installed syncthing which I use instead of dropbox, zsh, and built Emacs from source. It took forever but worked. Well, worked with some font problems. I ended up installing Emacs 27 from the Manjaro repositories and everything went seemelessly. Even though I ended up not using the source built Emacs it did show that the G++ toolchain all worked well.

I also tested Java and Clojure. No problems though starting Clojure seemed to take a day and a half.

Other tests included installing the Cinnamon and Mate desktop environments. The only thing I haven't been able to install succesfully has been a VPN. On the battery front, I haven't used it long enough in a sitting to put a dent in it.

Now, at $200, this isn't going to be a speed demon. My default config does a bunch of things so even opening a terminal with zsh has some lag. Once loaded though things are smooth. I would have loved more memory but 4GB seems sufficient for day to day stuff and student work.

Will his become my day to day laptop? I don't know. I think if I can slim down some of my config it might.

If you're looking for an innexpensive Linux laptop and are comfortable tinkering and reading some forums check out the Pinebook. If it was an option, I'd love to get these for my students instead of the overpriced Dells we have to get them every year.

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